Holiday Cheer

In my city many people do not celebrate Christmas. I live in a primarily Muslim community, so it’s not exactly the biggest holiday in town. However, a lot of people celebrate New Years and many traditions associated with Christmas in America are associated with New Years in Albania. For example, many people will buy New Years trees (aka Christmas trees) and there are some small light displays around town. The students in my Outdoor Ambassadors youth group wanted to do something fun to celebrate the holidays, so we decided to make holiday cards to hand out at our community nursing home. Outdoor Ambassadors did a similar activity at the nursing home last year for Valentines Day, so we wanted to do something on a bigger scale to celebrate the holidays.

Each group member made a New Years card to hand out at the center during one of our meetings. We discussed holiday traditions in America and in Albania. For those who celebrate Christmas, they usually have a big dinner with family on Christmas day. Relatives will come throughout the day to visit and enjoy some of the cakes and candies that the host made. They will typically sit and have a Turkish coffee in the home or another drink throughout the day. They do not have a tradition of exchanging gifts with friends or with adults; usually gifts are only given to younger children in the form of toys and dolls. They celebrate New Years Ever in a similar manner, normally spending the first portion of the evening with their close family having a big meal. Turkey is a popular dish on NYE and turkeys cost around eighty US dollars. Once the clock strikes midnight, the younger generation goes out to clubs and parties. They will usually dance until the sun comes up. One of my students is actually having a party at her family’s restaurant for all the students at the high school.

After they shared a bit about their Christmas traditions I explained the tradition in my family. On Christmas Eve, I go over to my grandma’s house to have a big dinner with the rest of my cousins, aunts, and uncles. We eat turkey, ham, and a lot of other delicious foods. My grandma is a wonderful cook and I will definitely miss all the wonderful dishes she makes every year for the holidays. After dinner, we go to mass at a church near her home. The children in the neighborhood sing Christmas songs and sometimes perform a short play before the actual mass. I used to be in all the church Christmas plays when I was a little girl. I always loved being the center of attention and caroling my heart out. After church, my cousins and I would always do “Secret Santa” gifts. Sometimes Santa Clause would even show up at our door! It was always a very special time – definitely my favorite holiday with my family. I also explained how many people in America put up holiday lights and decorations outside their homes. Sometimes on the way home from Christmas dinner my dad would drive me and my brother to the City and County building because Denver always lit in up for the season. It was great sharing stories with my students and other community members about some of my holiday traditions. It was also wonderful to hear more about how they celebrate too.

Once all the cards were made, we headed out to the nursing home a few days later. The students sat with the residents and listened to their stories. They gave out the cards (and lots of hugs and kisses too). It was really obvious that the residents the students spoke with were ecstatic to have company. One man told the students his life story and several of them were very emotional and cried during his story. Seeing the condition of many of the residents pushed the students in action. They want to being doing more activities at the home and would like to begin visiting the people there on a more regular basis. I am so pleased that the students are taking initiative and wanting to do more volunteer work for their community. The group has come such a long way since it started in February 2014. Outdoor Ambassadors students are acting as leaders in the community and the group is practically student run. I’m so proud of them for spreading happy holiday cheer and sharing a bit of their youth with some other members of our community.

One student wrote this to explain her experience at the activity,

“Can you go back to childhood? If yes than you can remember your grandparents. They were there for you, to take care, to sing a lullaby or to do anything else to make you happy. Can you remember this? Now remember each time you spent with them. Is this enough? Now that Christmas and New Year are coming everyone want to be with their family. Have you ever thought New Year in elderly house? If yes than you thought to do something beautiful for them. That’s what OA Kavaje though. Today we went to elderly’s house to wish them a Happy New Year! They were so happy. Some of them cried when they saw us. We gave them postcards and they kept them as a treasure. We were happy, sad, and proud at the same time. Happy for the fact we were with them. Sad because they were lonely and proud to be part of OA. They were happy only because we were there to hug and listen to them. It’s so easy to make them happy, only if you want. All I wanted to say is that you can make them happy only by being there for them.”

The group making cards.

The group making cards.

Some of the boys.

Some of the boys.

Hard at work.

Hard at work.

Beautiful card and a beautiful group.

Beautiful card and a beautiful group.

One of my students helping a woman back to the center.

One of my students helping a woman back to the center.

Listening to his life story.

Listening to his life story.

Hanging out with my new friends.

Hanging out with my new friends.

So sweet!

So sweet!

New friends. :)

New friends. 🙂

Handing out her card.

Handing out her card.

What a great group of people.

What a great group of people.

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More Than Meets The Eye

My site mate Chuck recently started a Toastmasters International group in our city. Toastmasters is an organization for adults to practice their public speaking skills. There are groups all over the world, but primarily in the United States. We are the first Toastmasters group in Albania. Different members take on various roles at each Toastmasters meeting. Someone might lead one meeting, be a timer at another meeting, or the ‘ah’ counter. It is a really interesting model because everyone gets the chance to be in leadership roles and not one single person is in charge of all the meetings. I like being a participant because usually I am not the one in a leadership role and I am just a participant. It’s great because I am learning how to be a better public speaker too, just like all the other members of the group. Toastmasters provides all the official clubs with books that they can use to track their progress and to plan their speeches. This past weekend it was finally my turn to give my first speech. The first speech in the book an ice-breaker speech to introduce yourself to the rest of the group. Hope you enjoy it.

More Than Meets The Eye

“Good afternoon Madame Toastmaster, fellow toastmasters, and guests. My name is Jill and the title of my ice-breaker speech is “More Than Meets The Eye”.

I am Jill, also known as Xhilli ne Shqiperi. I am young – only 24 years old. I am a woman. I am fat, skinny, curvy, and everything in between – depending on who you talk to. I have blonde hair and blue eyes. Some may say that I dress differently, but I think I look wonderful. But the first thing that most people notice about me is that I am foreign. I am obviously not Albanian. When I am out walking on the streets I will often hear soft murmurs, whispers, “Anglise, Germane, huaje.” Sometimes those whispers sound more like screams, “AMERIKANE!”

I am more than my physical appearance.

I am originally from the beautiful state of Colorado – born and raised. I am a daughter. My step-dad and mom live in New Mexico. My mom is a writer and my step-dad is an engineer of sorts. My dad and his girlfriend live in Colorado. My dad is a home-inspector and his girlfriend is a counselor. I am a sister. I have a younger brother Steven. I wish that we were closer, but it’s hard to keep in touch with the time difference and varied schedules.

I am more than my family.

One of the first questions that people ask me here is, “Je fejuar? Je martuar?” NO, I am not engaged. Nope, also not married. And I don’t want to meet your son or brother or friend.

I am more than my marital status.

I graduated from Colorado State University with my Bachelors in Social Work. Currently, I work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania. My primary assignment is at the Directory of Public Health in the office of health promotion. I work alongside Albanians to give health lessons in the local nine-year schools and high schools. I also created and facilitate several after school clubs at the high school. I am a teacher, but I am also a student. I learn just as much from the students I work with as they do from me.

I am more than my profession.

I love music, cats, and drinking wine. I love going to live shows and dancing my ass off at concerts. I miss that. I also love cats. I have a cute kitty at home named Kleo. And I occasionally like having a glass of wine, or two, or maybe some raki.

I am more than my interests.

I am a person, just like all of you. I have thoughts and feelings, wants and desires, fears and dreams. Sometimes I feel forgotten here. It’s hard to watch your old life pass by without you there – seeing friends get married, have children, experience death. Sometimes I feel like an American implant, a fish inside a fishbowl – just a pet to admire. People think that I have it all together. They see my Facebook timeline and make assumptions about my life and who I am. Just because I am American doesn’t mean I have it all together. I make mistakes just like all of you.

I am more than my physical appearance.

I am more than my family.

I am more than my martial status.

I am more than my job.

I am more than my interests.

I am more than my Facebook timeline.

I am more than your first impression.

I am more than meets the eye.

Thank you.”

The group.

The group.

Thanksgiving: Diten e Falenderimeve

First off, let me just preface this blog post with an apology for not blogging much recently. I have been incredibly busy (surprisingly so) since coming back from America in September. I applied for two grants and I am happy to announce that I have officially received both projects. My American site mate Chuck and I starting the first youth center in our community and I am working with my counterparts at the health center on the cervical cancer project to educate nurses and women, as well as help 100 women get free PAP smears. I will give you all more information about those projects later on. I have also started a weekly after-school class at the professional school to talk about various health topics and I am leading a Model United Nations team at the high school; our team is representing India. Besides all that, I am also in the process of applying to graduate school. It is very exciting, but also very overwhelming and time-consuming. Hopefully once I am finished applying to grad school I will begin to have some more free time again. Since I am so busy, taking some time off for the holidays was a much-needed respite from my daily obligations.

This year I attended a Thanksgiving celebration in the southern town of Kelcryë, which is actually somewhere I have never visited before. It’s always exciting for me to travel to new parts of the country and experience a day in the life of some of the other volunteers serving in Albania. I traveled down south with my regional site mate Steve and I was very grateful to have a companion for the four hour drive. Most of the roads weren’t too bad, so that was nice too.  Once I arrived in town, some other volunteers had already arrived and were snuggled up on the couch watching christmas movies on the couch. I joined immediately because it was raining and I was a bit chilled from my travels. We spent the afternoon playing games, listening to music, preparing the food (although honestly I didn’t do much of the prep work), and catching up. There were 24 volunteers total, so we had a nice little reunion. Some of the other volunteers were able to buy a live turkey in one of the villages for $80 and they killed the bird themselves the night before, so it was super fresh obviously. Dinner was great and we had most of the fixings that one would have at an American Thanksgiving back home. I brought an oreo jello pudding dessert sent in one of my care packages. Thanks mom! Our hosts, Will and Monika, were incredible. They were so welcoming and they made sure that everyone was comfortable and well-fed. They even made breakfast for everyone the next day, which was wonderful!

That electric blanket was magical.

That electric blanket was magical.

Our family away from family.

Our family away from family.

The bird.

The bird.

Some more of the delicious food. Shout out to Jackie for making a bunch of great stuff for the occasion.

Some more of the delicious food. Shout out to Jackie for making a bunch of great stuff for the occasion.

The next day some of us went on a mini-hike around the town and then we played Mafia for the entire afternoon/evening. It was a lot of fun to just relax and play games. Before heading back home, Quinn and I stopped in Permet, another nearby city that I haven’t visited before, to see the sights and have coffee with the volunteer living there. Permet is a cute place and I really enjoyed it. We had coffee by the river and climbed up a giant rock to get a panoramic view of the entire city.

The beginning of our hike.

The beginning of our hike.

Hello horsey.

Hello horsey.

Throwing rocks into the river for fun.

Throwing rocks into the river for fun.

Buildings in Permet are painted very nicely.

Buildings in Permet are painted very nicely.

The mosque in Permet.

The mosque in Permet.

The rock we climbed.

The rock we climbed.

What a gorgeous view.

What a gorgeous view.

View from the other side.

View from the other side.

Happy independence day flags!

Happy independence day flags!

Overall, my second Thanksgiving away from home was a success. I was surrounded with my Peace Corps family and friends. I am so grateful for all the wonderful people here who help support me. I am also grateful for my family and friends back home. Another highlight was definitely speaking to my family on the phone. Thanksgiving is never the same unless I’m watching Bond with my uncle after a giant meal at my dad’s house. It isn’t the same without all the delicious food that my grandma brings over. And it isn’t the same without the dinnertime conversations with my cousins, aunts, and uncles. I miss my family, but it luckily I wasn’t too lonely. Ya know, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

So thankful to have Quinn in my life.

So thankful to have Quinn in my life.